The engineer and adventurer Nigel Gifford last made headlines in 2014, when he sold his solar satellite company Ascenta to Facebook for £12.5m ($20m).
He is hoping to repeat the trick with his new venture: an edible, disposable drone called the pouncer, which can be dropped with high accuracy into disaster zones to provide emergency food rations.
The idea is a simple one. Currently, aid is dropped over disaster zones from military planes using parachutes, but Gifford says the system is “wasteful and expensive.”
“At the moment, people in a disaster zone are issued with something called a humanitarian daily ration (HDR),” he told Business Insider.
“An HDR doesn’t recognise culture, religious beliefs, or diet – you get issued with a pack that has 2,200 calories in it, and that’s it. Most of the time it’s wasted.”
With the Pouncer, which is still in its design stage, Gifford aims to eliminate wastage altogether. Its wing structure will be made from (as yet undetermined) food, and compartments in the main body and wings will be filled with different foods, according to the region the drone is being delivered to. The rest of the structure will be made from wood, to be broken down and used for cooking and heating. By the time the drone has been dismantled and consumed, there will be almost nothing left of it.
A tiny navigation system and cardboard fin will steer the drone to within ten metres of its intended target. Its long-range accuracy, says Gifford, is its other major advantage: a plane flying at 10,000 feet will be able to drop the Pouncer 21 miles away from its destination, compared to the 3.5 miles that a parachute delivery system can achieve, making it safer to deliver aid over war zones.
The inspiration for the project came from Gifford’s background of adventure. A former member of the British Army Catering Corps, he has been on five expeditions to Mount Everest and completed over one thousand parachute jumps. In the army, he specialised in feeding in hostile environments. Gifford said the idea for the Pouncer came specifically from skydiving. He rang the British Army’s parachute centre and asked a wingsuit flyer how far she could travel using the suit
“She weighs 75kg and she went 12 miles, so I knew that the principle would work — and that was the beginning of the pouncer.”
The food element came later, when Gifford was asked to create a drone that could deliver food efficiently.
“They were looking at conventional UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) and I said, ‘Well, why would you bring it back? Why don’t you leave it there, and why don’t you make it all out of food?'”
“I keep getting trouble with my wife at home – when we go shopping in the delicatessen, I’m the one that’s flexing the salamis to see what their tensile strength is because they’d make good spars [part of the wing structure]!”
Gifford is clear that the Pouncer still has some way to go before it can be rolled out. There are nine technical stages in the creation of a licensed aircraft, known as technology readiness levels (TLR), and the Pouncer is currently on TLR4. He believes, however, that the system will be at production point (TLR9) in less than 24 months.
Given the success of his first project — Mark Zuckerberg last week presented the Pope with an Ascenta drone — it is tempting to believe that the Pouncer will make a similar impact. “I’ve always been attracted to the art of the impossible,” Gifford says. “When people say, ‘Well that can’t be done’ – why not? And if you push and push, very often it’s because it never has been done, nobody’s thought about it. There’s no logical reason why it shouldn’t be tried.”
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